The rise of A24 as a production company and distributor has seen with it the public recognition, on Tik Tok and Reddit, of the A24 aesthetic; soft color palettes, outcasts coming of age or circumstance, shot under a blue sky on faux vintage film. The understanding of an “A24 aesthetic” in the public consciousness likely commenced sometime soon after Moonlight’s 2016 Best Picture win, and it was further defined with subsequent films like The Florida Project and Waves. This trio of works all happened to feature marginalized folks living in Florida, where the beautiful blue sky and expanse of ocean lent the narratives a sense of dissonant calm and the coast a shape of profundity, this in contrast to the turmoil and injustice experienced by the players existing therein, confined by their circumstances and by our screens.
But that homogeneity is not to suggest that these films are without merit, and indeed each, to varying degrees, articulate a curious tenderness. The same could be said of the studio’s latest, Greg Kwedar’s sophomore feature Sing Sing, which stars Colman Domingo as Divine G, a wrongfully convicted performer who founds and directs a theater troupe for fellow convicts in order to help them process their trauma with purpose as they live their limited lives in a maximum security correctional facility. Outside of Domingo, Sing Sing primarily features performers whose training came through their participation in the real theater troupe at Sing Sing Correctional Facility during their time spent in prison. An approach that could have gone either way, in execution this choice makes for a subtle but raw portrait that feels palpably rooted in both tangible pain and joy.
It’s also a move to be expected from A24 at this point, and is hard to consider outside the context of their other productions that have leveraged non-actors (The Florida Project, Red Rocket, Good Time, etc.) to approximate real-world authenticity, but which ultimately remain manufactured and manipulated to fit Hollywood’s preferred arc of redemption. This is particularly difficult to accept in Sing Sing, as concurrent to the troupe’s production of time-travel play is Divine G’s attempt to be granted clemency, on the basis of someone else’s confession to the murder for which Divine had been convicted. Friction increases as the play begins to find its footing, only for Divine’s ambition to ultimately crash when his clemency is denied. Meanwhile, a fellow prisoner whose parole materials Divine had prepared is granted release, and the troupe leader begins to spiral in the face of his own injustice.
In Sing Sing, the audience is made to feel appalled at the “others,” the power brokers perpetuating the penal-industrial complex keeping talented, well-educated, non-white men barred from the conclusion of their own redemptive arc. Through Divine, viewers are encouraged to experience anguish and helplessness, and for a moment, perhaps an incitement to dream, to act, in a way that might inspire real change in the face of the insidious realities presented on screen. This point reaches the climax of its filmic manipulation when VHS recordings of staged plays (featuring Domingo) are interspersed with real VHS tapes of plays put on at Sing Sing. At last, fact and fiction fully converge, the film forceful in its efforts to convince viewers of the “reality” of on-screen, irrespective of their credibility.
But the events onscreen aren’t fact. They are a fiction design to cavort as a convenient reality which would absolve viewers of any bystander effect or complicity. Somehow, Divine is released, and in the hapless joy of the film’s tidy conclusion, any inspiration lit within the collective audience’s spirit is extinguished by the cooing of a subtle hum: “everything is meant to be, and everything is going to be okay.” This critique is not meant to deny the outstanding performances found across the board here, or the beautiful lighting and camerawork that manage to transform a maximum security prison into a place where both play and worship are possible, one that can expand and not merely constrict life for those confined. But in its haste to provide its audience with a quick-shot empathy tour, Sing Sing fails viewers, giving them an equal dose of sanctimony and moral ease that they, the viewers, are good people, and that, in the end, the underdog will always win.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 5.